Gregory Spears’ Requiem: Beautiful Simplicity
It’s been a good year for requiems. The latest, by Gregory Spears, works permutations on a theme of the utmost simplicity, a series of spacious, allusively creepy intervals against a central note, creating a more surprisingly varied emotional palette than is usually found in somber works of this type. Yet overall, it is a serious, brooding, often considerably intense suite. The composer conducts a choir here which includes Ruth Cunningham and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek of Anonymous 4, Ryland Angel, John Olund and Lawrence Lipnik, accompanied by Jacqueline Kerrod on pedal harp, tenor Christopher Williams on troubadour harp, bass Kurt-Owen Richards on chimes, Daniel Thomas Davis on electric organ and Elizabeth Weinfield on viola. The themes are actually quite surreal and divided into two parts, Swans and Witches. Perhaps most unexpectedly, the music here was originally commissioned for a dance project: while the tempos are slow, with frequent counterrythms, there’s an understated grace to this music.
The opening prelude sets the tone for the rest of the work. Recorded at New York’s Corpus Christi Church in August of last year, the sonics are marvelously suited to the music: the natural reverb on the two harps gives them the incisive presence of a piano, but muted just enough to enhance the murky ambience. The voices enter in counterpoint, with an unexpectedly agitated, clustering, seemingly argumentative crescendo, the last thing one would expect to hear in a “Requiem Aeternam:” it’s jarring, to say the least, and it packs a wallop. The music begins to take on the feel of a baroque-era European folk song, followed by the contrasting modernism of the hypnotic Agnus Dei passage, a stately harp processional eventually giving way to the womens’ ethereal, otherworldly voices against a high viola drone.
That’s the dead swan. As with the bird, the dead witches get a simple, jewel-like broken chord for the choir to expand on, which then moves in the other direction, lower, then speeds up and takes on a distantly imploring tone: other than the big dispute earlier, this is as harrowing as it gets here. Like many works of this type, it ends on a more hopeful, more warmly consonant note (the final movement is available as a free download). It’s out now on New Amsterdam Records.